You may have noticed that I’ve been putting down five stories in the last three editions of The Calm Before. I couldn’t come up with five last week, and that’s why there wasn’t an edition out in time for MD6 of the Bundesliga - which I have to apologize for. I’ve been thinking of how important putting out a new edition is versus how important it is that I have five stories in each edition. So after thinking, I don’t intend to stick to five stories in every edition. I don’t want to put a story in here that’s not too important and I don’t want to make myself stretch to keep the theme. So, I hope you’ll understand that some weeks will not have five stories. This is one of those weeks.
The Most Expensive Group Stage Match of All Time
There are a lot of anecdotes you could put on this match. You could call it The Oil Money Derby or Qatar F.C. vs. Abu Dhabi F.C. or, if you really want to put yourself out there, “The Death of Football in One Match” could cut it.
But at the end of the day it’s a football match between two very rich and very successful football clubs. According to Transfermarkt, these teams occupy positions #1 and #2 on their list of most valuable squads in the world - with Manchester City ($1.16 billion USD) a cool $60 million more valuable than PSG ($1.10 billion USD).
Considering past encounters, this fixture seems to be on the lighter side in terms of intensity. The teams have met twice in the knockout stages of the UCL in the past, with the Manchester club victorious in all but one of them (a 2-2 draw). City knocked PSG out in the quarterfinals of the 2015-16 edition of the competition thanks in part to that aforementioned 2-2 draw being an away game. They followed that performance up with a 1-0 win, which booked their ticket to the semifinals where they would lose to eventual champions Real Madrid 1-0 on aggregate.
Their second encounter was far more recent: just this past season in the semi finals. Again, the away goals rule helped City immensely, wining 2-1 at the Parc des Princes before returning to Manchester and winning 2-0. That win booked their ticket to the finals where they would lose to eventual champions Chelsea 1-0.
This game is much different than those two fixtures last year. For starters, on the lighter blue side, they don’t have a striker anymore — though that didn’t necessarily hinder them last time. In their 4-1 win on aggregate, all four goals were scored by midfielders (three from Riyad Mahrez, one from Kevin De Bruyne). But this season, the team feels like it’s missing something, and manager Pep Guardiola has addressed this. “Strikers are strikers,” he said following a 1-0 over Chelsea at the weekend. “We don’t have this weapon that teams like Chelsea, United or Tottenham or others have. We don’t have a player to score 25 league goals for himself so we have to do it as a team.”
A team with a vast amount of striking talent plays them Tuesday. Paris Saint-Germain boast a number of players that could be utilized in that central attacking role — with responsibilities mostly falling on the shoulders of Mauro Icardi (3 goals in 9 games played) and Kylian Mbappe (4G/9gp).
Add to them a strong cast of rotating wingers who have all scored goals this year — including Neymar (1G/5gp), Pablo Sarabia (1G/2gp), Angel Di Maria (1G/5gp), and Julian Draxler (2G/9gp). The team’s 4-3-3 formation relies on fantastic midfield play and PSG have delivered on that. Ander Herrera (4G/10gp) is joint top goal scorer alongside Mbappe. Much like the winger corps, the midfield is in constant rotation with players like Gini Wijnaldum, Leandro Paredes, Idrissa Gueye (3G/5gp), Danilo Pereira, and Rafinha occupying different but important roles.
Though there’s going to be some handicaps for Les Parisians coming into this game. For starters, Gueye is out for this game on a red card suspension. Then there are the matters of the two players questionable for this game. Let’s start with Sergio Ramos. The former Real Madrid captain has been sidelined with calf problems and hasn’t made an appearance in a PSG uniforms since his transfer over the summer. Though in fairness to the club, it isn’t like they’re in dire need of his services. The backline has seen a lot of rotation, especially in Ramos’s position of center back. At various points, we’ve seen captain Marquinhos paired with Presnel Kimpembe, Thilo Kehrer and Abdou Diallo. Still, a healthy Ramos might have a lot to provide coming off the bench.
And then there’s the Argentina sized elephant in the room. Despite his high profile move, Lionel Messi has made little impact in the three games he’s played in Paris. He’s picked up more yellow cards (1) than goals or assists (0) over 190 minutes of playing time. Add to that the fact that he’s missed the last two Ligue 1 games after a bone bruise. But, Messi has never been one to shy away from the moment — and this moment is one he needs to rise to. Sure, his team is leading Ligue 1 — but Paris Saint-Germain now occupy a rare place where success in the Champions League is the only goal. Add to that the fact that this will be the fifth time Messi will face his former manager Pep Guardiola since the latter left Barcelona after the 2011-12 season.
Whether or not Messi will play is up to the training staff to decide. But regardless, his presence will be felt. For the watching world, you hope that it’s in his play on the pitch, and not his absence.
The Might of Milan
Both clubs of Milan — AC and Inter — are deciding to bring back the memories of the 90’s in their fight toward the top of the table. While they may be behind leaders Napoli at the present moment, both AC Milan (2nd) and Inter (3rd) have just as clean records as their southern counterparts. And both teams have interestingly heartwarming auras around them.
AC Milan have been stalwarts on the defensive end, allowing only three goals in the league good for 2nd best behind Napoli. The backline is much like the rest of the team: a patchwork quilt of youngsters but mostly veteran players who you’ve definitely heard of before. Remember those old FUT cards from FIFA 17-FIFA 19 you’d get just to say you built a Serie A or Bundesliga or Premier League club? They probably play on AC Milan now — and they’re much better than you think.
The backline usually starts with the 2nd best Hernandez brother, Theo Hernandez at left back. The center back combos often rotate between Fikayo Tomori, Simon Kjaer and Alessio Romagnoli and right back is almost always manned by Davide Calabria.
The midfield bucks the veteran trend in favor of some standout prospects — namely Ivorian Franck Kessie and the second coming of Andrea Pirlo in Sandro Tonali. Up front, Real Madrid loanee Brahim Diaz occupies the CAM role and is currently the team’s top goal scorer at four goals in seven games played.
Behind him there’s a three way tie for 2nd most goals at two a piece for newcomer Rafael Leao and two names which bring back fond memories for many: Olivier Giroud and Ante Rebic. Top that off with Mike Maignan in goal and it’s almost like we never left the 2018-19 season!
Inter Milan are in a slightly different scenario — if not a bittersweet one. Last year, the team became the first team other than Juventus to win the Scudetto since their cross terrace rivals in the 2010-11 season. Immediately following that title came a sobering reminder of their financial situation exacerbated by the pandemic. The club’s majority owners, a Chinese conglomerate, were forced to sell off a large number of shares in early 2021 and further financial issues trickled all the way down to Inter.
The team were forced to part ways with two of their most important players from last season: striker Romelu Lukaku and defender Achraf Hakimi. They were wounds that would take time to heal from, but none fatal. After all, Lautaro Martinez was still on the team to fill the void left by Lukaku and Hakimi’s role could be taken by veterans like Matteo Darmian and Danilo D’Ambrosio. It would just take a little time to adjust and see if the transplants would adapt to their new host.
Well, six games into the season and Inter Milan have scored 20 goals — the most in the league by a healthy margin. A lot of that is owed to Martinez (4G/6gp) but the top scorer is new acquisition Edin Dzeko (5G/7gp). Plus, midfielders like Joaquin Correa (2G/4gp), Arturo Vidal (1G/4gp), Matias Vecino (1G/6gp), Hakan Calhanoglu (1G/6gp), Nicolo Barella (1G/7gp) and Ivan Perisic (1G/6gp) have added to that total.
The backline has held strong after Hakimi’s departure, thanks in part to their ability to hold on to Milan Skriniar and Stefan de Vrij. Add to that strong performances from Darmian, D’Ambrosio, Aleksandar Kolarov, Alessandro Bastoni, and keeper Samir Handanovic, and you have a team holding a respectable seven goals allowed in the league (T-5).
While they both are unblemished in league play, they suffered losses in their first games of the Group Stage. For Inter, an 89’ goal from Rodrygo was all that was needed for Real Madrid to steal three points from them, while AC Milan fell to Liverpool in a 3-2 shootout. Both are hoping to turn their fortunes around and tackle what could turn out to be really tricky groups.
Red Bulls on Red Alert
There are few people who expect a coach’s first season to be an easy one. That being said, Jesse Marsch has had a rough go in his first two months of play in Saxony.
Let’s recap shall we:
- After losing their two best defenders in the summer, Marsch, the RB board (or both in some share of blame) failed to bring in any veteran leadership or reinforcements for the backline, instead opting for younger talent like French center back Mohamed Simakan. It’s a move which has worked in the past when replacing one or two pieces, but not the core of a backline.
- The club started their season going 1-1-1 in club friendlies with a win over AZ Alkmaar, a loss to Montpellier and a draw with Ajax.
- They followed that up with a successful start in their cup run: a 4-0 win over SV Sandhausen.
And then came a six game stretch where they went 1-1-4 consisting of:
- A 1-0 loss to Mainz after Simakan failed to properly clear a ball, letting Moussa Niakhate get a free header on net.
- A 4-0 win over an injured Stuttgart side that saw Dominik Szoboszlai score his first two Bundesliga goals.
- A 1-0 loss to Wolfsburg after Simakan and keeper Peter Gulasci failed to properly clear the ball, letting Jerome Rousillon free to pounce on the rebound.
- A 4-1 drubbing by Bayern Munich which started thanks to a handball in the box from Kevin Kampl leading to a Robert Lewandowski penalty, followed by a Jamal Musiala goal thanks to Willi Orban failing to close him out, followed by a goal from Leroy Sane thanks to Nordi Mukiele cheating high and no one in the box coming back to cover him, followed much later by an Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting goal thanks to what can only be described as utter laziness:
- Immediately following that was a 6-3 demolition at the hands of Manchester City that was so full of errors it would be unimportant to go through each one of them
- A 1-1 draw that should have been a 1-0 win if only Lukas Klostermann could cover Anthony Modeste who was standing all alone in the box
This weekend, Marsch’s side got a boost of confidence thanks to a 6-0 win over Hertha Berlin that saw midfielder Christopher Nkunku return to his form of last year scoring two and assisting one.
All this leads to a major problem: defensive inconsistency. While yes, the team aren’t worst in the Bundesliga in terms of goal difference (T-3rd) or in terms of goals allowed (T-6) they should be a lot better. A number of goals scored on them this season all boil down to failure to commit, failure to communicate, or failure to execute — and the last thing you want out of a Champions League defense is one that doesn’t stick with their assignments, doesn’t talk, and can’t do the simple things right.
And I know what you’re thinking: Bayern Munich is part of this problem in signing Dayot Upamecano. While yes, it’s clear this team misses Upamecano I have three points to add:
- Upamecano was not the only player to move this summer. Liverpool’s signing of Ibrahima Konate does just as much damage as Upa signing at Bayern.
- Signing Mohamed Simakan wasn’t a bad signing at all — nor was the signing of their other center back Josko Gvardiol. What is a bad thing was making the decision to start Simakan for every Bundesliga match in that six game run. When you give up multiple goals due to backline mistakes and fail to make a single change, that isn’t a good sign. Though to Simakan’s credit, not all the backline issues are his and he’s put in some good performances even in losses.
- Leipzig sold Upamecano to Bayern for $46.75 million USD. They sold Konate for $44 million USD. To take in a profit of over $90 million USD — in a year you came in 2nd in the Bundesliga and are two years removed from the UCL semifinals — after the loss of two key players requires immediate replacement through veterans. While that money definitely went to some good places (i.e. Andre Silva, making Angelino’s deal permanent), failure to bring in any veteran defenders is borderline self sabotage. There were a number of reasonably priced twenty-something options on the market this summer — names like Kurt Zouma and Jannik Verstergaard come to mind — that could have walked into a team like Leipzig and presented some form of starting caliber leadership and ability.
Marsch’s men need some form of turnaround now. It’s a good thing their next opponent in the Champions League is easy and not some tricky Belgian side who managed to keep PSG to a 1-1 draw in their first game of the group stage...
In speaking of Club Brugge...
Success or Luck In Brugge?
A win on Tuesday against RB Leipzig will prove something: this is the true Group of Death we were all fearing. Instead of being the throwaway game, Club Brugge might just prove themselves to be the proverbial punji pit of the group.
Make no mistakes about this club: they are young, they are fast, they are lethal up front. Consider that Bas Dost is on this team and he is nowhere close to being top scorer. Their average squad age is 24 and that they’ve officially acquired ten players this offseason. Somehow, a team that’s this new and this (relatively) inexperienced is leading the Juliper Pro League with a 5-3-1 record.
Of the new aquisitions, there may be none more important than Dutch winger Noa Lang. When I say new, I mean that he officially became a part of the team this year after a successful loan spell in Brugge last year. He came out of that weird pandemic season with 17G/11a in 38 games and joined the team permanently for only €6 million this summer. So far this year, he’s on track to eclipse that having already scored 4G/4a in 11 games. He’s drawing attention from clubs like Leeds United and Arsenal who may both be in need of his services come January.
Of course, there’s more to this team than just Noa Lang. The goal scorer in their 1-1 draw with PSG — Hans Vanaken also has four goals to his name and is as consistent a scoring threat up front as ever. They also have an impressive 20-year old Belgian midfielder in Charles De Ketelaere who’s impressive dribbling, pinpoint passes, and 4G/2a in 11 games keeps things flowing all over the pitch.
This team is talented and one that can’t be taken advantage of. If they can somehow make it to the knockout stages — bouncing either Manchester City or PSG in the process — they’ll have reinforcements on the way from the United States in the form of New England Revolution winger Tajon Buchanan. The only question is are they a legitimate threat in this group? Or was that impressive performance against Les Parisians just a red herring?
Here are Tuesday’s matches (all times Eastern U.S.)
- Ajax v. Beşiktaş (Johan Cruyff Arena - Amsterdam, NLD)
- FC Shakhtar Donetsk v. Internazionale Milan (Olympic National Sports Complex - Kiev, UKR)
- A.C. Milan v. Atletico Madrid (Stadio Giuseppe Meazza [San Siro] - Milan, Lombardia, ITA)
- Borussia Dortmund v. Sporting CP (Westfalenstadion - Dortmund, North Rhine-Westphalia, DEU)
- FC Porto v. Liverpool F.C. (Estádio do Dragão - Porto, PRT)
- Paris Saint-Germain F.C. v. Manchester City F.C. (Parc des Princes - Paris, FRA)
- RB Leipzig v. Club Brugge K.V. (RB Arena - Leipzig, Saxony, DEU).
- Real Madrid v. Sheriff Tiraspol (Estadio Santiago Bernabéu - Madrid, ESP)